In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s trip to Puerto Rico earlier this week, much ink has been spilled speculating about the political motivations and ramifications of the first official presidential visit to the island since 1961. Will the president choose a side on the issue of Puerto Rican statehood? Is he courting the Puerto Rican vote in swing states like Florida? Maybe he was just brushing up on his Spanish and sampling the lunch options in San Juan?
The issue of statehood is a politically perilous one. Puerto Ricans themselves are sharply divided on the issue. In the three official plebiscite votes on the island — in 1967, 1993, and 1998 — those puertorriqueños favoring full statehood have not yet won a majority, but never garnered less than 39% of the vote. The last vote between commonwealth, statehood and independence in 1998 saw a 50.3% majority of Puerto Ricans vote for “none of the above,” effectively maintaining the commonwealth status quo.
Stateside Puerto Ricans, however, tend to favor statehood more than their island brethren. While they have less complicated feelings about their homeland than Cuban-Americans, many share a similar sentiment that the island would benefit economically by a closer association with the United States, something that statehood would provide. These stateside Puerto Ricans are also quicker to embrace statehood considering they already pay federal income taxes, unlike those living on the island.
Making a pledge during the 2008 campaign that the issue would be addressed in his first term, President Obama commissioned a Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status soon after being sworn into office. The Task Force recommended a fourth plebiscite vote on the island by the end of 2012. President Obama followed up that recommendation this week by saying, “When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.”
What does this mean for the 2012 election? Now that the Obama administration has come out in favor of a new vote on the issue of statehood, the ball is in the Republicans’ court. With more than 4.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland, almost a million more than live on the island itself, they form an important voting bloc.
Perhaps Republicans will one-up Democrats by nominating a Hispanic vice presidential candidate like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico or Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Republicans could even take a stand directly on the Puerto Rican issue, like Gerald Ford supporting statehood in the waning months of his presidency in 1976.
That may seem farfetched, but the party on the island aligned with the Republican National Committee, the Partido Nuevo Progresista, is the party of statehood and the current Republican governor, Luis Fortuño, has consistently supported admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state. Taking a similar stand on the issue might galvanize some stateside Puerto Ricans who can vote in federal elections.
All of this is very speculative, to be sure. But the consequences of the Puerto Rican vote could prove to be decisive in a national election and the proof is in the Sunshine State pudding. As the New York Daily News noted last month, “The 2010 Census counted 848,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida…a 76% jump from 10 years earlier.” In fact, the number of Puerto Ricans in Florida today is not that far behind the number of Cubans (1.2 million). In a state where, despite a population of almost 19 million, the average margin of victory in the past three presidential elections was a little more than 200,000 votes, the preferences of a population of 848,000 could make a huge difference.